FORMER PRESIDENT Ford does not have a compulsive urge to return to the White House, he says. Mr. Ford was quoted in The New York Times over the weekend as saying, "I don't have that insatiable appetite of a lot of politicians, that I want to be president just because of the power and the prestige and all that stuff." But do not count Mr. Ford completely out of the 1980 race quite yet, because he has also said: "If there was an honest-to-goodness bona fide urging by a broadbased group in my party, I would respond."

But wait -- there are problems. Mr. Ford, or any broad-based party group that wishes to urge him to run, must first confront the reality of the calendar. The Republicans, this year, will hold a total of 35 primaries to select delegates to their national convention in Detroit next July. So far, Mr. Ford's name has been placed on only one ballot -- Maryland's. But the filing dates have already passed in 21 other primaries, and he is not in any of them. This very week, the filing dates will pass in Mr. Ford's native state of Michigan in in Indiana, Tennessee and the District of Columbia. No longer available to the former president, even if he were to enter the race today, would be delegates from any of the following states: Michigan, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Texas. In fact, after the April 1 decision date to which Mr. Ford alluded in his interview, only three primaries -- Nevada, Kentucky and Mississippi -- will not have been closed.

The delegate numbers are even more discouraging for any such late entrant. There are 460 delegates in the primaries whose filing dates have not passed. The 1980 Republican presidential nominee will need 998 delegate votes. So the remainder would have to come from the columns of some of the other candidates, excepting former California governor Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Reagan was all but written off by Mr. Ford when the former president said to The Times: "A very conservative Republican can't win in a national election" -- and then proceeded to identify Mr. Reagan as fitting the definition. So Mr. Ford can hardly expect encouragement from Mr. Reagan or his supporters. And the snapping back that started yesterday was no surprise. The same will probably be the case with Sen. Howard Baker and former ambassador George Bush, both of whom are striving mightily to emerge as the principal alternative to Mr. Reagan. Mr. Bush's followers would likely be especially affronted by Mr. Ford's new availability statement. The former president ignored the Bush victories in Iowa and Puerto Rico -- as well as his dead-heat finish with Mr. Reagan in Minnesota -- and mentioned only the Bush defeat in New Hampshire.

The point is that if Mr. Ford gets into the race as Viable Alternative, it is bound to get pretty mean. It probably would be a very arduous and inhospitable field Gerald Ford would be entering. And then there is the problem of raising the money and finding the staff at this relatively late date. Moreover, these great nostalgic urgings that a candidate come in to save a party from its current crop of contenders have a way of just turning the late entrant into yet another object of his party's discontent. They don't keep that support or rescuer image once they are in the struggle themselves. So Gerald Ford, as of today, looks like a very, very long shot. But then -- we of course hasten to add -- so did Jimmy Carter, only four months ago.